SANAA, Yemen – Yemen’s embattled president agreed Saturday to a proposal by Gulf Arab mediators to step down within 30 days and hand power to his deputy in exchange for immunity from prosecution, a major about-face for the autocratic leader who has ruled for 32 years.
A coalition of seven opposition parties said they also accepted the deal but with reservations. Even if the differences are overcome, those parties do not speak for all of the hundreds of thousands of protesters seeking President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s ouster, and signs were already emerging that a deal on those terms would not end confrontations in the streets.
A day earlier, protesters staged the largest of two months of demonstrations, filling a five-lane boulevard across the capital with a sea of hundreds of thousands of people.
The uprising and a wave of defections by allies, including several top military commanders, have left Saleh clinging to power and now appear to be pushing him to compromise on his earlier refusal to leave office before his term ends in 2013.
For decades the former military officer has fended off numerous challenges, deftly maneuvering among the nation’s powerful and fractious tribes and using security forces to put down opponents. Al-Qaida’s most active franchise has attacked his forces, an armed rebellion has battered the north of the country and a secessionist movement has reappeared in the once-independent south.
The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes powerful Saudi Arabia, has been seeking to broker an end to the crisis in the fragile nation on the southern edge of the Arabian peninsula.
Under the latest draft, Yemen’s parliament would grant Saleh legal protection from prosecution. The president would submit his resignation to lawmakers within 30 days and hand power to his vice president, who would call for new presidential elections.
Opposition spokesman Mohammed Kahtan described the Gulf council’s initiative as “positive” and said the leaders of the opposition parties have all agreed on it.
Kahtan, however, listed several reservations. He said the opposition rejects the draft proposal’s call for the formation of a national unity government within seven days of the signing of a deal and wants to see Saleh step down first.
“We would have to swear an oath to Saleh, who has already lost his legitimacy,” he explained.
They are also against giving Yemen’s parliament – dominated by Saleh’s party – the power to approve or reject his resignation, which opens the door to allowing the president time to stall.
Mohammed al-Sabri, another spokesman of the opposition, said that if the parties sign the initiative it does not mean that the mass protests will come to a quick end.
“We don’t represent everybody in the squares. We only represent the political parties,” he said.